VBM: Five Key Takeaways from the 2020 General Election

By Robert F. Witko
President and CEO
Fort Orange Press

The 2020 general election cycle brought an unprecedented challenge to voting and an opportunity to learn and to prepare for elections going forward. Change and adaptation to Vote by Mail (VBM) regulations erupted quickly; the timelines for production, printing, mailing, tracking and tabulating ballots were tight and extreme.

The 2020 general election set the stage for the most significant mailing of our lifetime. Compounding this were concerns about the accuracy and security of the election process while conforming to the regulations set forth by each state. Some states and counties did better than others.  Understanding the reasons for successfully executed elections can benefit every municipality.

Here are five essential takeaways from our experience handling VBM in the 2020 general election and considerations going forth.

1. Data handling will make or break VBM.

The VBM process begins with a list of names of those who have requested to vote by mail. The quality of this data is imperative to the success of the campaign. Election officials are often plagued by inconsistent data formats across multiple collection points. For instance, how data is entered over the phone, through a webform or through other voter registration methods can all vary slightly. This can yield a database with a fluctuating format which will result in a lower CASS standardization rate when the data is prepared for USPS processing.

CASS standardization is necessary for ballots to be processed with USPS intelligent mail barcodes (IMbs). IMbs ensure accuracy and allow mail to be tracked upon entry to the USPS and ultimately to voter delivery on the address level. This tracking data is integral for voter confidence. If a voter record is mailed without an IMb, it is untrackable. Accountability and reliability are lost.
There are data tools that can help better prepare voter databases for CASS. Working with a vendor who has created such tools will result in an overall higher percentage of IMb-coded names. Ideally, every address should pass CASS standardization. Imperfect records that don’t pass CASS should be put through a planned process to facilitate speedy correction and reprocessing.

2. The success of a VBM campaign is driven by the ballot format.

The format of a ballot and envelope package will determine the intelligence capabilities of the overall campaign. Ballot and envelope design should be a top priority and formatted in a way that runs efficiently on both the unique intelligent inserters that produce VBM campaigns as well as the specific ballot scanners used by each municipality. Designing the ballot and envelope in a format that can be processed effectively by this state-of-the-art equipment ensures the greatest potential for success.

In addition to intelligently inserting the ballot and envelope components, the latest inserting equipment also provides valuable data insight throughout the production process as it captures records passing through each step. This functionality allows for real-time reporting throughout the manufacturing process ensuring schedules are kept and ballots are produced and delivered with accuracy.
Streamlined production and variable data printing also make it possible to have both outbound and return IMb barcodes. The proper equipment makes it possible to assign return IMbs during the final stages so that voters and election officials can track completed ballots returned to the municipality in the USPS mailstream.

Overall, proper ballot and envelope design will result in increased transparency, secure production, faster turnaround and a higher accuracy rate.

3. Every ballot counts; a closed-loop production workflow is critical.

A secure, closed-loop production workflow ensures that every single ballot is mailed to the right voter. To achieve this, the VBM vendor must have multilevel security, tracking and data integrity through every step of the process.

The production workflow should allow for inline printing of the unique voter content from each voter file. A security crosscheck system should utilize 2D barcodes and multiple cameras for matching all components of a ballot and envelope package throughout the entire production process. And a real-time auditing procedure occurring at each stage of the process functions to ensure 100% chain of custody.

It is critical you understand your vendor’s workflow and how they will guarantee all ballots are mailed correctly.

4. Transparency and reporting protects all parties involved.

Full transparency and data reporting will protect the municipality, the VBM vendor and, ultimately, the voter. Election officials and voters should have access to real-time tracking data. They should be able to see when records were processed, mailed by the vendor, scanned by the post office, delivered to the voter and put back in the mail to the municipality.

To achieve this, the vendor fulfilling the VBM campaign must have the resources and technical know-how to manage the data and fulfill production and the platform to aggregate the two.

5. Technology and experience are prerequisites in handling VBM fulfilment.

Selecting the right vendor to partner with you will make all the difference. Preparation is key, as is conducting a thorough search for vendors early on, rather than finding out too late that you made the wrong choice. A VBM election is not just a print or mail job that you bring to a local business to produce. It is a complex operation that should be managed by a team of experts with the right technology and relevant experience.

When considering a partner, look for one with the resources to ensure ballot printing and mailing integrity, ability to meet tight deadlines and that security protocols, redundancy plans and a chain of custody are in place.

A partner should work as a consultant, ensuring the accurate execution of the stringent VBM process from campaign conception to completion.

About the author: Robert F. Witko is President and CEO of Fort Orange Press in Albany, NY. The company has over 100 years of New York State election printing expertise. To learn more call 800-777-3233 or click here.